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The science of music: What makes a song ‘catchy’?

If you've worked with me or know me personally (or both) you know that I have a pop music sensibility. I really love a song with a great hook. The catchier the better for me. And I've been very lucky lately because I've had the pleasure and privilege of working with some amazing songwriters.

One in particular I call "The Hit Maker". His songs have more hooks than a tackle box! This got me thinking about what makes a catchy song, well, catchy? Some will say it's the melody while others believe it's the lyrics. Personally I think it's both, but there has to be something more, right? To find out I did a some research about the science of music and found the article below. It's written by Tibi Puiu over at ZME Science. If you're as fascinated with music as I am I think you'll find this one to be very interesting.

Written by Tibi Puiu
Musicologist Dr. Alison Pawley and psychologist Dr. Daniel Mullensiefen out at the University of London have dabbled into the difficult task of scientifically determining what makes people sing along to certain tunes. Their research has lead them to claim that there are various factors that make a song catchy, and in the process have compiled a list of the UK’s top 10 sing-along songs.

Mullensiefen said, “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology, from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers that can add effects to make a song more catchy.

“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”

The researchers conclusion was that there are four traits that make a song catchy:

  1. Longer and detailed musical phrases. The breath a vocalist takes as they sing a line is crucial to creating a sing-along-able tune. The longer a vocal in one breath, the more likely we are to sing along.
  2. Higher number of pitches in the chorus hook. The more sounds there are, the more infectious a song becomes. Combining longer musical phrases and a hook over three different pitches was found to be key to sing-along success
  3. Male vocalists. Singing along to a song may be a subconscious war cry, tapping into an inherent tribal part of our consciousness. Psychologically we look to men to lead us into battle, so it could be in our intuitive nature to follow male-fronted songs.
  4. Higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort. This indicates high energy and purpose, particularly when combined with a smaller vocal range (Freddie Mercury of Queen and Jon Bon Jovi).
"Freddie Mercury possessed all the necessary frontman skills to write and perform a "catchy" song."

You can read the rest of the article as well as a list of Top 10 UK singles that include the criteria above over at ZME Science.

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “The science of music: What makes a song ‘catchy’?”

  1. Destiny May 22, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    Four score and seven minutes ago, I read a sweet arlitce. Lol thanks

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